Joining a new employer, whether as a young person out of school or as a transfer from another company, can be exciting and stimulating but also a bit bewildering. It's a new work environment with new co-workers, new responsibilities, new processes and cultural norms.
That's been a significant issue for BASF (IW 1000/35), the German chemical company with more than 17,000 employees in North America alone and sales of $20.6 billion in 2014. About half the employees have joined BASF since 2006, primarily through acquisitions. To help them navigate this new culture, the company has invested in a mentoring program designed to personalize the company and deepen employees' connection with it.
Rather than focusing the program on helping employees prepare for a specific job, this program helps them "prepare for a BASF career," explains Patricia Rossman, BASF's chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Rossman stresses that the program is "mentee driven." Employees fill out a profile that explains what they are seeking from mentorship. BASF uses a vendor program which matches them up with a list of mentor possibilities. Employees have reported that they are pleasantly surprised by the mentor suggestions generated by the software and find that mentors who at first blush are not the most obvious match turn out to have job experiences or other attributes that make them an excellent choice.
For example, if an employee is preparing for a new assignment in a different country, they "may choose to be paired up with someone who has been very successful at an overseas delegation," notes Rossman.
While prior mentoring programs tended to be focused within business units, Rossman explains, this program seeks to connect employees across businesses and help capitalize on the experience brought into the firm. About 1,000 mentors and mentees are currently participating in the program.
Mentoring relationships are not "arranged marriages that go on forever," Rossman notes. They typically are set up for six months, which she says provides "more of a sense of urgency and of accomplishing your goals." Because BASF mentors in particular tend to travel a good deal, they can often meet personally with their mentees even if they aren't located near each other. BASF recommends that mentor and mentee meet for a minimum of one to two hours per month. Rossman said employees may go on to have other formal mentoring relationships but frequently stay in close touch with their earlier partner.
While mentoring is open to everyone at BASF, says Tammy Haynie, who oversees the mentorship program, the company makes special efforts to ensure that groups with strategic importance, such as high-potentials or women, are brought into the program. Haynie said BASF developed a road show that it took to about 15 locations to highlight the program, including lunch and learn sessions. The company has also designated employees as mentoring champions. They are trained employees who act as on-site resources to answer questions about the program and provide support for it. The company also regularly promotes the program through its internal communications avenues and holds periodic enrollment campaigns.
Some experts see the influx of millennials into the workforce (they now make up one in three U.S. workers) driving the need for mentorship. Shawn Casemore, a management consultant and author of Operational Empowerment: Innovate, Collaborate and Engage to Beat the Competition (McGraw Hill, 2015), noted that many companies are faced with baby boomers leaving their workforce. Companies want the "fresh ideas and fresh blood" that millennials offer, he noted, but they also want to ensure that boomers will pass on important knowledge before they retire. Mentorship offers an avenue to do that.
"Young people have come through schools where teachers are not as direct as they once were. They are more facilitative," observes Shawn Casemore,. "Young people are not necessarily used to working for a boss. They want a mentor."
While mentors have plenty of knowledge and experience to share with their mentees, the benefits of these programs don't only flow one way, says BASF's Rossman.
"What we hear over and over from mentors is they underestimated how much they would learn," she reports. They get to see their business from a fresh perspective and to get feedback on their leadership style. "That has been an unexpected benefit."